Smugglers turn saviours for Afghan refugees

Smugglers turn saviours for Afghan refugees

By Fariba Nawa
October 11, 2001
Agence France Presse

Islamabad — Sealed borders don’t stop refugees. Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan has been closed for weeks, but hundreds, if not thousands of Afghans are managing to cross through mountain passes unpatrolled by border guards.

Most pay an average of 500 rupees (eight dollars) to ride to the border zone in vans and station wagons filled with illegal goods.

The smugglers drop them at the foot of the mountains where they rent donkeys, if they can afford them, or simply walk up and over to Pakistan.

Ghulam Mohammed Feda, 61, has been living in Islamabad for the past 11 years, but went back home to renew his Afghan passport two weeks before the September 11 terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington.

The renewal fee is 17 dollars in Kabul compared with the 104 dollars demanded by the Afghan embassy in the Pakistan capital, and Feda was looking to save some money and visit family before the onset of the harsh Afghan winter.

The journey into Afghanistan was a smooth one. Public transport took him from Peshawar to Kabul where he renewed the passport and his Pakistan visa, and enjoyed visiting his cousins.

Feda was drinking tea and quietly swapping unflattering talk about the Taliban government when the first news filtered through of the kamikaze plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

When the Taliban announced that every block in the city had to produce 20 men between the ages of 18 to 35 to fight in the new jihad (holy war) against the United States, Feda, whose name means “sacrifice” in Arabic and Farsi, decided it was time to return to Islamabad. He was not alone.

“People began to leave. Caravans of cars loaded with people’s belongings headed for the borders. From 10 apartments, only two apartments still had residents,” he said.

“People went in all directions, north, south, west, without knowing what was really happening,” he recalled as he sat, cross-legged on a floral mat in his Islamabad flat — his white cotton, loose long shirt and pants matching the colour of his neatly trimmed beard and slicked hair.

Feda took the 12-hour journey back to the Torkham border crossing, only to find that the frontier had been closed and 500 other Afghans trying vainly to get through.

His passport and visa were summarily dismissed as border guards told him to return to Kabul. “I was worried. I have heart problems and diabetes. I wasn’t sure what to do,” Feda said. In the end, he threw in his lot with the smugglers, paid his 500 rupees and joined a group of seven men in the back of a station wagon.

They headed southeast toward the mountains of Shakh-i-Shamshad, where they were duly offloaded in the early hours of the morning.

A few kilometers (miles) east, Feda rented a donkey to take him up the rocky mountainside. “Every mountain passage was full of people on donkeys and some were walking, We kept going up for two hours,” he said.

When the sun rose, Feda was in Pakistan. He took a bus to Islamabad and spent most of the next week in bed.

“My legs are swollen. But I’m happy that I made it. Many others didn’t.”

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